5 ways to improve your major pentatonic licks

Albert Lee
(Image credit: Douglas Mason/Getty Images)

The Major Pentatonic provides a great alternative to the standard Major scale, and is common in country, blues, and rock, through to indie and pop. Like the Minor Pentatonic, it features a five-note formula but with the intervals 1-2-3-5-6 instead of the Minor’s 1-b3-4-5-b7. 

Perhaps the most helpful aspect of this scale and its five fretboard positions is that it uses the exact same shapes as the Minor Pentatonic, based on each other’s relative Major and Minor scale. For example, E Minor Pentatonic uses the same shapes as G Major Pentatonic. 

But you need to think about your phrasing because, although the shapes are the same, common intervals like root and 5th sit in different places within each shape. So take care which notes are targeted, especially when finishing a phrase. 

When we think of the Major Pentatonic scale, country music immediately comes to mind. Albert Lee’s Country Boy is a fine example of a track that features some blazing country licks, primarily based around the Major Pentatonic scale. 

In a blues context, this scale provides a sweetness not found in the Minor Pentatonic. But whereas the Minor version can be used over an entire blues progression, the Major Pentatonic requires a little more thought. 

The reason for this is that when the IV chord comes in, the scale doesn’t fit so well. While the intervals 1-2-3-5-6 work over the I chord, over chord IV the Major 3rd of that scale equates to the Major 7th of the IV chord. This creates a clash not suitable to this style of music, particularly if the IV chord is played as a Dominant 7th where the clash really jars. 

Speaking of blues, a great example of the Major Pentatonic in this context can be found in the intro solo to Fleetwood Mac’s Need You Love So Bad, as played by Peter Green, while in jazz the Major Pentatonic outlines a 6/9 chord perfectly, making it a great alternative to a Major 7th. 

The scale is also perfect for rock songs in a Major key, or indeed any style of music with a Major persuasion. In rock, the two-notes-per-string shapes allow for lots of fast Pentatonic phrases, especially when topped off with emotive bends and vibrato.

The inclusion of the Major 2nd and Major 6th intervals add great color to rock licks and provide a very musical sound. For instance, Slash’s first two solos in Guns N’ Roses’ Sweet Child ‘O Mine showcase how the Major Pentatonic can be used to create soulful and melodic phrases. 

Our following five examples span a range of genres and playing styles, while the study piece is based around a country-rock feel, using the majority of the guitar neck to explore the scale and its shapes. 

Get the tone

Amp Settings: Gain 4, Bass 6, Middle 7, Treble 6, Reverb

As this is a generic technique and theory lesson, any electric guitar tone will work, although it’s sensible not to go for anything extreme – so avoid outlandish wobbles, delays, or distortion. 

I used a bridge single-coil pickup guitar with slap-back delay for the country style examples and study piece. A little overdrive was added for sustain, plus a little ambient reverb.

Tab and audio

Example 1: Open-string country lick 

This is a classic lick using open strings. I have notated this using hybrid picking, but you could use a pick exclusively, replacing the second finger with an upstroke using a plectrum. Aim for secure timing and phrasing, as it’s easy to speed up with licks like these.

Example 2: Fretted country lick

For this example we shift to the next position of the G Major Pentatonic scale. As with the previous piece, you could substitute the middle second of your picking hand with upstrokes using a guitar pick if preferred. 

Example 3: Blues Lick

For this example we showcase a lyrical blues lick, with the idea moving up an octave in the second bar. Watch the quarter-tone bends, using your ear and personal taste to decide how far you would like to bend each note. 

Example 4: Shape #1 rock lick

This lick uses the same shape as example one, although shifted up an octave. A mixture of legato and picking is used to create a fluid sound. Aim for consistency with your timing and tone, and finish with some musical vibrato. 

Example 5: Descending legato rock lick

A combination of slides and legato was used to create this slippery sounding lick, which descends over two octaves and four Major Pentatonic shapes. 

Fluid fretting-hand movement and secure timing are essential to play this lick accurately. Take it in small chunks at first if you find it tricky.

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Simon Barnard

Simon is a graduate of the UK's Academy of Contemporary Music and The Guitar Institute, and holds a Masters degree in music. He teaches, examines and plays everything from rock to jazz.